When Spectrosynthesis opened at Taipei Museum of Contemporary Art last year, it was billed as Asia's first major LGBTQ art show and a showcase of queer life across the continent. But how far did it really go in representing such a diverse and multi-cultural community? Kenneth Dow explores the shows successes and shortcomings, and asks what we can learn for the future.
Hou Chun-ming, Man Hole, 2014-2016
The Museum of Contemporary Art Taipei recently closed Spectrosynthesis, its massive survey show on Asian LGBTQ positions in contemporary art. It was billed as the first major show on this subject in Asia. Of the exhibition title, the curators wrote, ‘White light consists of all colors of light,’ emphasising the presentation of LGBTQ in all its facets and differences. The show filled two floors of the museum, and featured 51 works by 22 artists, with a surprising number of filmic approaches. It received widespread media attention and positive reviews at a time when Taiwan is in the spotlight for its progressive rights agenda.
The existence of such a show is very important, as openly expressing ones sexual identity remains heavily sanctioned in many Asian countries. The topic is relevant, but so is its careful, well researched treatment. Here Spectrosynthesis had some shortcomings in its curation.
Artists featured were predominantly from Sinophone nations and the American west coast, which was an interesting geographical conception of Asia. The curatorial statement described the show as an 'exhibition [that] represents the life stories and related issues of the post-war Chinese LGBTQ community'. Both Asia and LGBTQ seemed to be a very general note of what the show aspired to represent. The work on display were good, but it was the full spectrum of neither LGBTQ positions nor Asia.
Martin Wong, Mi Vida Loca, 1991
The dominance of male cisgendered artistic positions in the show was a point picked up on by a number of critics. Visitors to Spectrosynthesis were greeted by a painting of a gigantic brick phallus (American artist Martin Wong). I would’ve appreciated this raunchy work - which was, at time of its production, a very provocative painting - in a show more diverse. To the present day spectator though, this work felt more like a cliché of male homosexuality. Starting with Wong and then moving the spectator towards a more complex understanding of queer could have been a challenging curatorial decision. Unfortunately Spectrosynthesis tended to fall back onto a Tom Of Finland type of imagery as the show progressed.
One of the most memorable pieces on display was Passion by Wang Jun-Jieh, a three channel video installation screened onto canvasses and separated from the spectators by a pool of water. It featured a homoerotic sci-fi fantasy of astronauts and cruising sailors, evoking the lighting and highly aesthetisized surrealness of Querelle. Just as in Fassbinder’s film, the scenes were a symbolic meditation on the conception of desire as the sentiment that fuels all human actions. Wang is a significant artist in Taiwan, and Passion is a work of great relevance. But in a show dominated by male homonormative eroticism, of which this piece was the most prominent iteration, it in some ways undermined the curators’ claims of covering the full spectrum of LGBTQ.
Wang Jun-Jieh, Passion, 2017
There were exceptions.Tao Hui’s video Talk About Body showed the artist wearing a hijab and full length dress, telling a story of oppression, flight and marginalisation through the stereotypes assigned to his physiognomy. With reference to drag modality, he skillfully addresses normative regimes that intersect his life (Islam, Grindr, etc.)
The video seemed to attempt to reclaim the term 'Identity' towards a concept much akin to 'class awareness'. Difference is no longer a cause for separation, but a reason to unite and reclaim ones rights.
This was, I believe the intended message of the whole exhibition. It is of inestimable value to see such a show, especially because LGBTQ people still face exclusion or worse in most of the home countries of most artists on the show. But Spectrosynthesis had its shortcomings, and they need to be pointed out.
Tao Hui, Talk About Body, 2013
It may have been over ambitious to say this show was representational of such a vast diaspora of cultures. But if one has the curatorial freedom to address these matters - the funding, the space, the institutional standing and visibility - one should represent better, and curate better. Possibly sourcing works from more than one collection (the show was co-organized by the Sunpride foundation) would be a step towards more diversity.
I hope the next institutional level show on LGBTQ in Asia will encompass its full spectrum, both in sexuality and in geography. This show could rightfully call itself the first show on LGBTQ in contemporary Asia. I look forward to seeing it.
Words: Kenneth Dow
Translation: Peter Sierzput
Article originally written in English. Photos by CINEMQ and Kenneth Dow.
CINEMQ is a queer short film screening + party series. It is run by a group of queers with too much on their mind to sit still for long. We’re publishing articles on queer cinema and screen culture every week. Want to contribute? Message our account.